Text: Luke 13:10-17 Revised Standard Version (RSV)
Jesus Heals a Crippled Woman
10 Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. 11 And there was a woman who had had a spirit of infirmity for eighteen years; she was bent over and could not fully straighten herself. 12 And when Jesus saw her, he called her and said to her, “Woman, you are freed from your infirmity.” 13 And he laid his hands upon her, and immediately she was made straight, and she praised God. 14 But the ruler of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had healed on the sabbath, said to the people, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be healed, and not on the sabbath day.” 15 Then the Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his ass from the manger, and lead it away to water it? 16 And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the sabbath day?” 17 As he said this, all his adversaries were put to shame; and all the people rejoiced at all the glorious things that were done by him.
In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Amen.
The comedian and actor W. C. Fields was not known for his religious faith. Yet one day, a friend was shown into his study to find W. C. poring earnestly over an open Bible. Shocked, the man asked, “W. C., whatever are you doing?” “I’m looking for loopholes,” came the reply.
Loopholes. Exceptions to the rule. Today’s lesson is a case in point.
Jesus is teaching in the synagogue one Sabbath – something that every rabbi could be expected to do. And the men and women of that particular faith community were present to hear what this Nazarene rabbi had to say. Our usual Sunday morning worship service is very much like those in which Jesus participated – we come to hear the Word, pray, sing hymns, and worship God very much like they did. Nothing surprising so far.
But then Jesus sees that woman who had been bent over for eighteen years, and his heart went out to her. And he took action right then and there.
Barclay reminds us that this is the last time we hear of Jesus being present in a synagogue. The authorities had long since begun trying to find things they could pin on him – so they were watching his every move, taking note of his every word, so they could pounce on him as soon as the opportunity arose. Jesus knew that; and yet here, right in the synagogue, probably in the presence of the very people who were out to get him, he calls that woman over to him and heals her. This was an act of great compassion, and one that we would expect Jesus to do.
But it was also an act of great courage. There, in front of friend and foe alike, Jesus breaks a cardinal rule of Jewish tradition – he performs an act of “work” by healing this woman; and work was strictly forbidden on the Sabbath – well, actually it wasn’t so “strictly” forbidden after all, but we’ll talk about that in a minute.
We might not think of this as an act of courage – because, after all, Jesus was and is God – but, as we know, Jesus was fully human as well as being fully divine; so the human Jesus was definitely running a massive risk by defying the authorities. And we know what that defiance eventually cost him.
But he did run that risk for the sake of that woman. In protest, the ruler of the synagogue said to the people – he didn’t have the guts to say it directly to Jesus – that he could have just waited until tomorrow or some other day that wasn’t the Sabbath to heal that woman. And Jesus answered him and his other detractors by quoting their own law. These very same rabbis abhorred cruelty to animals, and it was perfectly acceptable and legal on the Sabbath to let animals out of their stalls to feed and water them. Jesus pointedly asks them, “If you can show such compassion to an animal on the Sabbath, certainly it is right in the sight of God to relieve this poor woman of her infirmity.”
Well, Jesus carried the argument that day – but it didn’t stop people like that from continuing to find ways to stop him. Eventually, of course, they did; but what they didn’t know was that they were doing exactly what God had planned for them to do all along.
Anyway, Jesus had committed an unforgivable sin – he had broken that unbreakable rule that said that no work can be done on the Sabbath. And that was just one the rules – the laws – that governed the Jewish people. They had enough rules back then to choke an elephant. We’re familiar with the Ten Commandments; but the Ten Commandments were just the tip of the iceberg. There were somewhere around 637 commandments at the time of Jesus – 637 rules that people were expected to follow without deviation or exception. Who could possibly even remember all these rules?
Nobody, as it turns out. That’s why they came up with the idea of writing down all these rules on a very small piece of parchment, rolling that scrap of parchment up, sticking it in a tiny little box, and carrying it around on their wrists like a First Century Fitbit or Apple iWatch, or on a string around their foreheads, just so those rules were always available for consultation.
Can you even imagine living like that? At any given moment, on any given day, people simply assumed that they were sinning in at least some minor way. And all this was on top of the normal, day-to-day activities of making a living, raising children, and going about your routine tasks. It can’t have been a very joyful existence.
And then, to make sure that you were following the rules, and to take you to task when you weren’t, there were people like the president of the synagogue, people for whom the rules were set in stone and could not be broken for any reason. The phrase, common today, that “rules were made to be broken,” did not exist back then.
Rules. I have some personal rules, and I imagine you do, too. One of them is that a meal is not finished until the kitchen is clean. That way, I avoid having to clean up the mess the next day. That’s a pretty minor personal rule. But rules like that help us to structure our daily lives, to create order out of chaos.
Some rules and laws are absolutely necessary for our safety. Crossing the street only when you have a green light is one of them. Same goes for driving through an intersection – green means go, and red means stop. Such rules were created to help us to live together in safety and harmony, what the Apostle Paul refers to as “good order” in Colossians (2:1-23).
But adherence to the rules can become a trap. This is what had happened to not only that ruler of the synagogue and his compatriots, but also to their entire society. Opposing that oppressive hold the rules had on them – and they didn’t even realize they were being oppressed by these rules! – was where courage entered into the equation. Jesus challenged that synagogue president to see that he loved his rules and the systems that they created more than people. On another occasion recorded in Mark, Jesus makes the famous declaration that “the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mk. 2:27). Telling them this was not welcome news.
Today, too, we have a lot of rules. Just what is it about rules that makes them so compelling and so powerful? Barclay says that “[o]ne of the great problems of a developed civilization is the relationship of the individual to the system.” The tension between individual freedom and collective responsibility is as relevant today as it was back then; “you can’t fight city hall,” as they say. But today we witness Jesus doing exactly that for the benefit of an individual over the rules made by “city hall” as represented by the synagogue leaders.
Barclay writes, “In Christianity the individual comes before the system.” In applying whatever the rules are in any given moment, consideration of the individual must take the first place, not the last. “Rules are made to be broken,” as the saying goes; but we don’t break the rules just for the sake of breaking them, we break them when they prevent due and proper consideration to the individual. In Charles Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist, young Oliver creates pandemonium when he asks for another helping of food:
“Please, Sir, I want more.”
“More? No one’s ever asked for more” comes the reply. (This was no doubt because no child until Oliver Twist came along had dared to ask.)
Giving a hungry child a little more food was completely against the institution’s rules. A rule was more important than a child.
“In the world and in the Church,” says Barclay, “we are constantly in peril of loving systems more than we love God and more than we love one another.”
But Jesus makes clear – abundantly clear – that it is not God’s will that any human being should suffer, especially when it is in our power to end that suffering. The Jewish law stated that it was perfectly legal to help someone on the Sabbath if they were in mortal danger (another very important loophole). Now, if Jesus had postponed the healing of that woman until the next day – she had been suffering for eighteen years already, after all – nobody would have criticized him; but Jesus insisted that suffering must not be allowed to continue to tomorrow if it could be ended today.
We are all daily surrounded by opportunities, large and small, to make a difference in the world as followers and in the name of Christ. That, in a nutshell, is the definition of “ministry.” We may not have the power to heal as Jesus healed that woman; but we all have the power to give of ourselves to meet a need another might have.
If we think that our contributions are so small as to be meaningless, here are a few examples of small acts of kindness that changed the world:
“The WWI Christmas Truce between French, German, and British Troops
“This poignant moment in the first year of World War I saw soldiers from different countries putting aside their differences in no man’s land. Accounts suggest that the temporary ceasefires allowed the homesick troops to trade prisoners, collect dead or wounded comrades, swap cigarettes and food and even sing carols and play football together. It was seen as a symbolic moment of peaceful humanity during one of the most violent events in human history.
“Princess Diana shaking the hand of a man with AIDS
“In 1987, the rhetoric around AIDS was fear-inducing and alarmist. The public were unsure about the nature of the disease, how dangerous it was and how it could be transmitted. When Princess Diana visited a hospital in London, she was photographed shaking the hand of a patient suffering from AIDS without gloves. This single moment of compassion changed the dialogue around AIDS, challenged the false belief that the disease could be transmitted by touch and showed Diana’s unwavering kindness for other people.
“Japanese pensioners who volunteered to work in Fukushima
“After the nuclear crisis in Fukushima, Japan, a group of 200 Japanese pensioners volunteered to face the dangers of radiation instead of the young. Calling themselves the Skilled Veterans Corp, the group of retired engineers and other professionals volunteered to take on the danger that working in the area could bring. The cancer they could develop from the radiation could take 20–30 years to develop, meaning they would no longer be alive to experience it.
“Caitlin Boyle was feeling negative about herself while in a public bathroom when she decided to find a new way to tackle her self-hatred. She began sticking anonymous positive messages written on post-it notes in public places, writing phrases such as ‘you are beautiful’ and ‘you can do it’. Thousands of notes have been posted all over the world, and the project which is now called Operation Beautiful inspires humans to feel better about themselves and pass the message on to others.
“The actions of Harold Lowe, who manned the only lifeboat that returned to the wreck of the Titanic
“Harold Lowe, a 29-year-old officer on board the Titanic, was the only person who returned to the site of the shipwreck to save survivors. Despite fearing that the his boat would be swamped by desperate people and eventually drowned, Lowe turned his boat around and went back, saving as many as six people from the freezing sea.”
No act of kindness is too small. No helpful deed that we can do today should be postponed until tomorrow.
In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Amen.
 Barclay, William, The Gospel of Luke, The New Daily Study Bible, © 1975, 2001, The William Barclay Estate, Louisville, Kentucky, Westminster John Knox Press, p. 210
 From “10 Small Acts of Kindness That Changed the World,” https://theculturetrip.com/europe/articles/10-small-acts-of-kindness-that-changed-the-world/